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Artist Connect from BEING Studio: The valuable presence of disabled artists

Ottawa, OntarioOttawa (Ontario)

Story Seeker: Margaret Lam
Person interviewed: Rachel Gray, Executive Director (former Artistic Director)
Interview date: July 6, 2021

Between January and March 2021, BEING Studio held an online symposium entitled “Artist Connect”. This three-month long program featured 25 Zoom events. They were attended by over 150 disabled artists from BEING Studio (Ottawa), Propeller Dance (Ottawa), The Space (Ottawa), H’Art Centre (Kingston), National accessArts Centre (Calgary), and the Nina Haggerty Centre (Edmonton) who had the opportunity to meet digitally and share their art with each other.

Artist Connect is captured in a video report that offers a glimpse of what the experience was like for the participants, revealing insights about how to create spaces for meaningful connections when all we have is a device, a camera, an internet connection, and each other.

The Innovation: Ways of deepening conversations about disability arts in a virtual space

BEING Studio (formerly known as H’Art of Ottawa) is an art studio that has served artists with developmental disabilities in the Ottawa region since 2002. It offers a place where artists working on visual art and creative writing can cultivate their artistic practice, connect with the disability arts community, and receive support in promoting and selling their art.

Ever since participating in the Cripping The Arts Symposium in 2019, BEING Studio has worked to connect with artist studios that support disabled artists across Canada in order to create an informal exchange of specialized knowledge and resources.

Prior to the global pandemic, the level of coordination and planning required to bring everyone together in person for meaningful engagement required a substantial level of human and financial resources.

Chris Binkowski Bucko, keynote speaker at a Virtual Coffee session of Artist Connect

During the pandemic, BEING Studio adapted quickly to offer “Virtual Coffees”: informal online spaces where BEING artists could meet and socialize. As they gained experience in facilitating interactions between artists in a videoconferencing environment, and the need to fill the gap of human-to-human connection increased, the idea of Artist Connect was born.

Artist Connect was designed to offer a forum for friendship and knowledge exchange. BEING Studio wanted to understand how other studios serving artists with developmental disabilities were impacted by the pandemic.,

A strength of Artist Connect is their digital facilitation practice. Every event required a close collaboration between BEING Studio hosts and the guest speakers to prepare plain or clear language versions of their presentations. Though there is no formula for accomplishing this, it is clear that distilling a topic down to its essence requires dialogue and conversation.

BEING Studio also intentionally incorporated movement and play in many of their sessions, just as they do with their in-person programming. Naomi Tessler from Branch Out Theatre had a dedicated session to use theatre games and exercises as an embodied way to communicate the Artist Connect community agreement.

The Challenges: Plain language, adapting to various levels of digital literacy, and creating a welcoming digital environment

Delivering such thoughtful facilitation in a digital context is not easy, but it started with a simple question, “How can we problem-solve together?”

Given the need for plain language, the two session hosts engaged with the speakers in advance to ensure integrity of  the content, while ensuring that language would not create a barrier for access.

This can be a challenging process but ultimately a generative one for all parties. Speakers found that it helped them get to the core of their message and improved the audience’s understanding. Hosts increased their professional knowledge and understanding on topics ranging from use of digital tools to disability culture and identity.

Within the context of disability arts, successful in-person facilitation relies on reading body language and the dynamics between participants. Both of these things are absent in a digital setting. The difference in participants’ digital literacy also made it challenging for facilitators and participants to know how to interact and engage. As such, running successful online events required an adaptive “in the moment” approach to facilitation.

Analisa Kiskis, artist and Board member at Being Studio

In order to create a warm and welcoming digital environment while accounting for the challenges described above, it was important to ask: Who are we not hearing from? How is this digital environment structured? How can we invite contributions from those not comfortable speaking?”

Asking these questions were more important than having definitive guidelines and structure. This Is a facilitation approach that prioritizes understanding where people are speaking from, actively listening and weaving in the different perspectives, and reaching out to as many participants in the room as possible.The extended three-month timeframe of Artist Connect also made it possible to build up the trust and rapport needed to understand the participants’ different digital needs and preferences.

One final challenge was determining how to report back to the community in a way that was true to the spirit that had permeated the whole project. While the intention to generate a report was there from the start, a traditional written report would not be fully accessible to the disability community.

BEING Studio addressed this by defining for themselves what data was meaningful to collect, the questions that they were most interested in exploring, and what was most meaningful to share back with the community. Their work was supported by Story Seeker Margaret Lam, the design research lead at Creative Users Projects. The result is a video report (available at beinghome.ca) that conveys the Artist Connect experience as well as the learning and insights that emerged. They also developed a checklist for running online events.

The Financials: Funder support in the short term, with insights into alternative revenue streams over time

With an annual operating budget of about $200,000, Artist Connect was a fairly large undertaking, including about $60,000 in direct costs plus administrative overhead. Program delivery costs associated with Artist Connect included speaker fees for special guests and artists.  These were supported by the project’s funders, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ottawa Community Foundation, with additional support from individual donors.

This Artist Connect symposium was free to attend for anyone affiliated with the participating organizations and studios. Given that these organizations each serve a very specialized community of artists with developmental disabilities, the event was not expected to be a revenue-generating activity. Modest revenue was generated through donations and increased visibility of the online shop, where art created by BEING Studio artists is available for purchase.

Since concluding the Artist Connect symposium, there has been tremendous energy within the organization to think of their potential impact in broader issues such as disability justice. While the specific areas are still emerging, there will certainly be explorations on alternative revenue streams in relation to new kinds of activities for the organization.

The Impact: Artistic development, new connections, and a new focus

A key refrain throughout Artist Connect was the idea that disability is not an absence, but rather a valuable presence. This powerful idea left a deep impression on the staff and volunteers from all six organizations, and the more than 150 artists who participated. There were countless numbers of “hidden” participants – the partners, guardians, family members, and support workers who are just outside of the frame. These countless individuals will remain witnesses to the impactful changes in artists long after the event concluded.

For BEING Studio, the process of curating Artist Connect brought them in close collaboration with other disability-centred organizations, such as the Disability Justice Network in Ontario. It resulted in tremendous organizational learning, as each staff member had the opportunity to engage with knowledge experts, reflect, and grow as they learned from each event.

In the process of experimentation with digital engagements and partnership building with organizations that are outside of the Ottawa region, BEING Studio began to recognize the role that their Ottawa-based community organization can play in a larger conversation about the disability justice movement and improving access to the arts.

Even after in-person gathering becomes possible again, BEING Studio will continue to offer digital events and programs in order to reach artists who may not be able to attend in person and to expand their connections with different communities of disabled artists across Canada.

The Takeaways: Accessibility, collaboration, and the impacts of the arts

By approaching challenges with an openness to explore possible solutions and carving out the time that is needed to do it well, the Artist Connect process presented tremendous opportunity for learning and growth, including key takeaways such as:

  1. The value of making spaces for voices who may not be empowered to speak.
    There is an opportunity to learn and grow when we take the time to seek out the missing voices and engage in a process to create spaces where they can be heard. They are opportunities to better understand our communities and ourselves, as well as to encounter perspectives and narratives that are off the beaten path, but no less human and relevant.
  2. Ask questions that invite collaboration, rather than questions that have a “right” answer.
    As we all navigate digital landscapes, it becomes increasingly clear that there are no magic bullets and that everything requires negotiation. By embracing this as a constant in all digital interactions and actively paying attention to and making room for how others prefer to engage, we can become more critical of the digital tools that we use and more in tune with each other.
  3. A report is an opportunity to check in and keep questions alive.
    The creation of a report offers an opportunity to articulate the purpose and format in relation to the people for whom it is created and what is most valuable to them. Taking a creative approach to reporting can spark new conversations. It also expands the way we think about knowledge and how it is shared in order to benefit and empower others.
  4. The arts sector has a role to play in other parts of our society.

The arts and culture sector has knowledge and insights from which other sectors such as health, community services, and even tech and social enterprises can learn. In order to situate and align our work in those contexts, we need to cultivate relationships with such organizations through project-based collaboration. They are opportunities to increase our understanding of those sectors and to create space for innovative approaches that will further our respective mandates.

 

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Logo d'AlavivaCarving on the Edge Festival, pre-COVID-19. Photo by Sonja Peterson